Western couldn’t hold serve against a motivated Pittsburgh team on Saturday night, but there’s still lessons to take away for the Broncos.
The Pitt Panthers came to Kalamazoo to give the Broncos a taste of their own medicine. The Broncos scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to make it a one-possession game, but even that was misleading. They had to use a trick play to score their only touchdown. The traditional offense was woeful.
The Broncos were the victims of an old-fashioned crock potting.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, crockpotting when a team with has a controlled lead throughout a game and separates easily at the end, like separating the meat from the bone after being cooked on low for eight hours. It’s a deliciously appropriate term.
Pitt never trailed, and couldn’t be stopped in the fourth quarter en route to the 34-13 win. The pregame drama about who would start at quarterback for the Panthers didn’t matter. Third-string QB Nate Yarnell started in place of Kedon Slovis, who was available but banged up, and Nick Patti. Patti didn’t make the trip to Kalamazoo after a leg injury against Tennessee.
The Broncos took eight plays to get positive yardage. They went backward for a yard during the first three-and-out, threw an interception on the first play of the second drive and went for zero yards on the next three and out.
At the end of the first quarter, the Broncos had three rushes for one yard and two completions on eight attempts for 20 yards with a pick-six. It was a demoralization of the Bronco offense. It’s a minor miracle they got three points out of that.
The Broncos kept fighting but at the end of the game, they averaged 3.8 yards per play. It takes a very specific type of game to win with 3.8 yards per play and it usually involves a monsoon.
Defensive slugfests and games where an outmatched offense gets help in the form of defensive touchdowns, special teams touchdowns or immaculate field position from turnovers can be won with 3.8 yards per play.
Speaking of turnovers, the Broncos got one in that first quarter. WMU punted on their third possession and bounced off of a Pitt blocker, who was pushing the Bronco player into the Pitt punt returner. WMU jumped on the ball and threw a 21-yard pass to Jehlani Galloway to get into field goal position.
Despite that bit of turnover luck, the other three turnovers benefited Pitt. The first was an interception that was returned for a touchdown. A perfectly jumped pass to Crooms that was returned uncontested.
The second didn’t hurt much. It was essentially an arm punt. Salopek pushed the ball deep to Crooms and couldn’t fit the pass inside the coverage. A safety was over the top and the pass was to the safety’s side of the field instead of the sideline. It was a bad pass, but Pitt’s field position wasn’t great and the defense forced a three and out.
The next possession ended in a turnover as well, this time it was a pass to the endzone of a seven-point game. This one hurts almost as bad as the pick-six. It was third and goal from the fifteen and the same safety that made the interception before intercepted another pass. It was another empty drive, this one should have ended in a touchdown or at least a field goal. Instead, the Broncos come up empty.
The Broncos gave up three turnovers while the game was still within a touchdown or less. Offensive inefficiency cannot survive turnovers, and neither could Western Michigan.
This section might come across as pretty negative towards our dear Broncos, so let’s start with this:
Pitt’s defense is really good, especially their front seven. The defensive line is one of the strongest in the nation, giving a ranked Tennessee program problems just the week prior, and standing on its head to allow the offense to complete a comeback against West Virginia in Week 1.
With that context, Jack Salopek’s lack of comfort throughout the night could be understood. Even on throws where he wasn’t pressured, he was delivering off-target from his back foot. He looked like a freshman for the first time, and that’s OK. It was going to happen eventually, and it’s best to happen during non-conference play.
He completed six passes on eighteen attempts for 99 yards. That’s not nearly efficient enough to maintain drives. He had trouble with long passes and short passes. Offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne could not find easy completions for him, and Salopek needed a ground game to keep the defense honest.
It got so bad, the offense had to draw up a receiver pass trick play just to move the ball downfield. It worked, but getting to that level of desperation is a sign in and of itself something was off all night.
All that said, 2.4 yards per rush is never going to be good enough regardless of opponent. That’s the sack-adjusted number too. There’s no fix for this problem once the game starts with the scheme WMU wants to run. The Bronco offensive line is too young and not at the same caliber as the Pitt defensive line.
The Broncos were in third-and-long too often and they became one-dimensional. The problems are simple. The solutions are not.
The Pitt offense is not as good as their defense. They started their third-string quarterback, which will decrease the offensive output, and they were very conservative. The new QB leads the conservative play calls, but head coach Pat Narduzzi wants it that way.
Last season with Kenny Pickett as their quarterback, they achieved the #4 offense per ESPN’s SP+ and Narduzzi hated it. His new offensive coordinator, Frank Cignetti, Jr., seems content to run the ball exactly as much as Narduzzi would like.
For example, Pitt had the ball at their own 40-yard line towards the end of the first quarter. After first and second down runs yielded four total yards, the Panthers were facing a third-and-six. Pitt called another run and did not convert. To that point in the game, the Panthers converted a third-and-18 on the only pass they attempted, but a third-and-six was more passing than they were willing to do.
It’s not the Broncos fault that their opponent was being conservative and they did their best to take advantage. They didn’t allow a touchdown until the third quarter despite multiple scoring opportunities by the Panthers. The stops in the redzone allowed the Broncos to hang around, which is a great way to pull a late upset.
Unfortunately, the defense was on the field too much. Pitt had the ball for 38:36 and it wore down the defensive front for WMU. The runs that were being stopped for two-yard gains were going for six by the end of the game. It’s what the Pitt offensive game plan counted on, but it has to be said that counting on the fourth quarter alone to really separate is risky.
At the end of the day, the Broncos couldn’t force Pitt off the field until they were in the redzone, and Pitt wasn’t running an explosive offense that the Broncos would typically struggle with. On their third and fourth drives, Pitt wasn’t forced into a third down until they were in field goal range. Those drives were eight and ten plays long. An earlier stop gives the Broncos a field position advantage and keeps points off the board.
With no support from the offense, the Western Michigan defense had a mediocre game. Stopping some drives sooner would have upgraded the performance to good, but by the end of the game, they were out of gas.
The Broncos are headed west for their next game against San Jose State. The Spartans are a mixed bag of results so far with a close win at home against FCS Portland State and a one-score loss to Auburn.
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